When two sub-genres of the horror film collide, the result is V/H/S. The film is primarily a portmanteau production, the cinematic equivalent of a book of short stories from a small but worthy collection of films which perhaps began most notably with Ealing studio’s Dead of Night (1945). Others followed, including such European classics as Black Sabbath (1963) and Spirits of the Dead (1968) as well as the many memorable Amicus Productions from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964) and Tales from the Crypt (1972) and films such as George A Romero’s Creepshow (1982). The other sub-genre is that of the more recent ‘found footage’ film, post Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007)(though let us not forget, or perhaps we should really try to forget Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and other such predecessors) which have a specific style of visual language and editing (or apparently lack thereof) of their own.
V/H/S, then, is a blend of the two, a found footage portmanteau film. The end result is, like many examples of the sub-genre, a film that has stronger sections (Second Honeymoon, The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger) and weaker ones (Amateur Night, Tuesday the 17th) but it all really boils down to a matter of taste. Like comedy, horror is a genre that can succeed or fail depending on the differing reactions of its audience – some viewers find certain scenes funny, jumpy, gross, sexy or scary when the same material can create adverse reactions for others. So V/H/S is a mixed bag of goods and, as with any anthology of horror, there is an over-riding story that allows the tales to be revealed…
A group of young blokes are offered the chance to get a bundle of cash for stealing an old VHS tape. On breaking into a house they discover a very dead looking man in front of an almost Man Who Fell To Earth set of old CRT televisions. There are videos, lots of them, so the gang set about trying to find the prized tape. What they discover is a stream of VHS footage from a variety of sources, the only apparent connection being that they all portray events and situations of an increasingly shocking, brutal, violent and, at times, monstrously supernatural nature.
Despite the retro nature of the VHS format, the stories generally relate to modern concerns; those of gang related escapades, internet phones and sex videos as well as clubbing. Indeed the latter gives rise to what becomes a notably impressive use of a supernatural monster that really embraces the format in Tape 56 (despite the irritating characters hell-bent on partying until they quite literally drop). The use of internet messaging and communication gives us an unexpected series of revelations as well as some shocks in The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.
There is a major drawback with V/H/S: when one character states ‘I’m gonna close my eyes so he doesn’t scare me’ you might, as the viewer, agree with that assertion because, although there are many scary and occasionally very graphic scenes, the depiction of gore and savagery is trifling compared with the seasick-like nausea induced by the relentless hand-held camerawork. The final product is a sometimes creepy, often gory, sporadically shocking, occasionally infuriating film that feels exactly like a VHS tape compilation. Even if you don’t like some of the tracks….